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Verstehen is a German word which does not directly translate into English but is loosely synonymous with "understanding" or "interpretation"[1]. In the social sciences it refers to a kind of non-empirical, empathic, or participatory examination of social phenomena. The term is particularly associated with the German sociologist, Max Weber, whose antipositivism established an alternative to prior sociological positivism and economic determinism, rooted in the analysis of social action. In anthropology, verstehen holds parallels with cultural relativism and has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture attempts to relate to subcultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point-of-view.


Meaning of the term

The word is pronounced [fərˈʃteːən], and is used as an attributive noun in phrases such as Interpretative Sociology (verstehende Soziologie). There is also a tendency in modern English not to follow the German-language practice of capitalizing nouns. It roughly translates to "Meaningful Understanding" putting yourself in the shoes of others to see things from their perspective.

Dilthey and hermeneutics

Verstehen was introduced into philosophy and the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) by the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey to describe the first-person participatory perspective that agents have on their individual experience as well as their culture, history, and society. In this sense, it is developed in the context of the theory and practice of interpretation (hermeneutics) and contrasted with the external objectivating third-person perspective of explanation (Erklärung) in which human agency, subjectivity, and its products are analyzed as effects of impersonal natural forces in the natural sciences and social structures in sociology.

Twentieth-century philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer have criticized what they considered to be the romantic and subjective character of Verstehen in Dilthey, although both Dilthey and the early Heidegger were interested in the "facticity" and "life-context" of understanding, and sought to universalize it as the way humans exist through language on the basis of ontology. Verstehen also played a role in Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz's analysis of the "lifeworld." Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel further transformed the concept of Verstehen, reformulating it on the basis of a transcendental-pragmatic philosophy of language and the theory of communicative action.

Weber and the social sciences

Max Weber and Georg Simmel introduced interpretive understanding (Verstehen) into sociology, where it has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture (such as an anthropologist or sociologist) relates to an indigenous people or sub-cultural group on their own terms and from their own point-of-view, rather than interpreting them in terms of his or her own culture. Verstehen can mean either a kind of empathic or participatory understanding of social phenomena. In anthropological terms this is sometimes described as cultural relativism. In sociology it is an aspect of the comparative-historical approach, where the context of a society like twelfth century "France" can be potentially better understood (Besserverstehen) by the sociologist than it could have been by people living in a village in Burgundy. It relates to how people in life give meaning to the social world around them and how the social scientist accesses and evaluates this "first-person perspective". This concept has been both expanded and criticized by later social scientists. Proponents laud this concept as the only means by which researchers from one culture can examine and explain behaviors in another. While the exercise of Verstehen has been more popular among social scientists in Europe, such as Habermas, Verstehen was introduced into the practice of sociology in the United States by Talcott Parsons, an American follower of Max Weber. Parsons incorporated this concept into his 1937 work, The Structure of Social Action.


Critics of the social scientific concept of Verstehen such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Dean MacCannell counter that it is simply impossible for a person born of one culture to ever completely understand another culture, and that it is arrogant and conceited to attempt to interpret the significance of one culture's symbols through the terms of another (supposedly superior) culture. Such criticisms do not necessarily allow for the possibility that Verstehen does not involve "complete" understanding. Just as in physical science all knowledge is asymptotic to the full explanation, a high degree of cross-cultural understanding is very valuable. The opposite of Verstehen would seem to be ignorance of all but that which is immediately observable, meaning that we would not be able to understand any time and place but our own. A certain level of interpretive understanding is necessary for our own cultural setting, however, and it can easily be argued that even the full participant in a culture does not fully understand it in every regard.

See also


  1. ^ [1]


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